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Comment of the week

Soraya Solomon

Nicro CEO


We've been speaking for too long, we've got to take action.

We need YOU!

"If you change nothing - Nothing will change"

We are calling on ALL South Africans to join us in BEING the change we want in our country. Find out how you can play a part in doing something about crime and its impact on our society. 

What does a normal day look like in one of South Africa’s prisons? 

Do they still sew mailbags? What’s on the menu? What sort of exercise possibilities are there? What are the chances of getting a single cell?

Horror stories abound about prison gangs, rape, warders who turn a blind eye and desperate overcrowding. Especially in the prisons for men.

We take a look at what the general population faces on a daily basis...

The state and cost of SA prisons

According to Department of Correctional Services statistics for 2014 there are 112 467 sentenced prisoners in SA. Only 2% (2 663) of sentenced prisoners are female, compared to 109 804 male prisoners.

According to a report on the state of South Africa’s prisons, released in April 2014 by the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders, the sentenced prisoner population is 79% black, 18% coloured, 2% white and 1% Asian.

There is a disproportionately high number of coloured offenders and a low number of white offenders compared to South Africa’s demographics, with each of these groups making up 9% of the national population.

According to an article the lower white prisoner population is "as a result of relatively better socio-economic circumstances and life opportunities".

In terms of sentencing trends, just over half of prisoners are serving sentences of 10 years or less, while there has been a big spike in those serving life sentences. 

In 1995, 433 prisoners were serving life sentences and in 2010 there were 9 947 — an increase of 2,197%. Now 9% of all prisoners are serving life sentences.

Prison life day in, and day out

But prison routines and activities vary for different categories of prisoners, depending on factors such as the number of staff on duty, whether it’s during the week or the weekend, how many prisoners there are and so on. 

According to the books, this is what a day in prison is supposed to look like:

  • Wake-up call

At seven o’ clock cell doors open and warders do the first roll-call for the day. By that time prisoners are supposed to have washed, dressed themselves and cleaned their cells.

There is no smell of bacon and eggs as inmates are marched to breakfast. They are greeted with a spread of porridge and coffee or juice.

The next meal will be served at 11 o’ clock. Lunch consists of a form of meat or protein, a starch and a vegetable. 

  • Daily activities

All inmates are required to attend programmes aimed at rehabilitation. There is supposed to be an emphasis on sports activities and education and training. However, this tends to be largely theoretical as overcrowding places huge restrictions on activities and rehabilitation programmes.

While inmates may also be obliged to work, fewer than 10% have this opportunity. And while it is required that inmates have at least one hour of exercise per day, this might not happen when there is a shortage of staff.

Medium-security prisoners have more opportunities: they are able to work on agricultural projects, they can study, take part in rehabilitation programmes, and have more visiting rights.

Maximum-security prisoners have very limited privileges, but they certainly cannot leave the complex to work, and also have very limited visiting rights.

  • Single cell?

Most prisons have single and communal cells. A double cell is rare. Some prisons have triple cells. Communal cells house anything from 24 to 80 prisoners.

Inmates can apply to be assigned to a single cell. Factors such as whether you are studying and whether you might be in danger from the other prisoners are taken into consideration. Most prisoners land in a communal cell.

  • Visits

Visitation for sentenced inmates depends on the category in which they are classified. Visits can be limited to twice per month for twenty minutes. Some of these visits can also be exchanged for telephone calls. Access to incoming and outgoing post is unlimited, but it is subject to censorship.

  • Health care

Access to health care is generally severely limited. In most cases healthcare officials are not available. District surgeons are sometimes only available once a week. 

Although Government has vowed to address the problem, in the past prison staff members generally have not had the capacity to administer drugs to inmates. Another recurring problem has been that medication had often reached its expiry date. In fact, access to health care is purely theoretical in the case of many of our prisons. 

  • Lock-up

At 3 o’clock inmates have their last meal of the day. The menu for supper varies – mostly it consists of six slices of bread and a beverage of some sort. Inmates are escorted back to their cells to finish their meals there.

The last roll call for the day is done and inmates are then locked up. For the remainder of the day and night inmates are left to their own devices.


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